When I discover who I am, I’ll be free. ~ Ralph Ellison
Infused by unconventionality and inspired by Garvey, 43 years later Reggae Legend Bob Marley would echo these same words in the lyrical birth of Redemption Song, an acoustic masterpiece of sheer deliverance.
More than 300 years prior to both trailblazers, no podiums, drums, acoustic guitars, echoplex or hymnbooks were used to deliver messages so meaningful among the slaves; just echoes of surging, melismatic melodies punctuated with low tempos and ecstatic chants expressing hopefulness – but also distress. These were the spirituals sung by the African slaves of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Their optimism traveled (with them) religiously through west-central Africa to the Caribbean, South America, and British North America, all the way to the Underground Railroad. By 1860, eighty-nine percent of the nation’s African Americans were slaves; blacks formed 13 percent of the country’s population and 33 percent of the South’s population. [Source: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History].
The level of slave exports grew from about 36,000 a year during the early 18th century to almost 80,000 a year during the 1780s. Between thirty and sixty million Africans were subjected to this horrendous triangular trade system and only one third – if that – survived. Nowhere in the annals of history have people experienced such a long and traumatic ordeal as Africans during the Atlantic Slave Trade. [Source: The Middle Passage @ Tom Feelings/commentary by Dr. John Henrick Clarke]
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln would discuss – then proceed – with the issuance of a preliminary proclamation ordering the emancipation of all slaves in any state, or part of a state, to halt by January 1, 1863. Despite the rebellion from all of the Confederate states, Lincoln’s order took effect. The Emancipation Proclamation outraged many white Southerners who envisioned a race war, angered some Northern Democrats, energized anti-slavery forces, and undermined forces in Europe that wanted to intervene to help the Confederacy. The Proclamation was a step towards outlawing slavery and conferring full citizenship upon ex-slaves. The assertion lifted the spirits of African Americans, both free and slaved, and restored liberty, hope, and light. Inconveniently, it was not until two years later on June 19, 1865 that the order was satisfied by way of Union soldiers who sailed into Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War [by way of general command] ordering the release of the quarter-million slaves residing in the state. This day became known as Juneteenth.
One hundred years later in 1962, during the Civil Rights Era and trailing Lincoln’s stroke of the pen, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would reference the Emancipation Proclamation by placing it alongside the Declaration of Independence as an “imperishable contribution to civilization.” He lamented it despite a history where America “proudly professed the basic principles inherent in both documents, it sadly practiced the antithesis of these principles.”
He concluded, “There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.” [Source: National Park Service on history/culture]
Shortly thereafter, Dr. King formulated the evolution known as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (often referred to as the “I Have a Dream” speech) where he gave this most famous invocation of the Emancipation Proclamation while standing on the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Albeit, with the many centuries of declarations, regulations, principles, and decrees of past and present, what does it truly mean to be free? We seek liberation for many things: speech, achievement, individualism, choice, and most intrinsically – freedom within the atmosphere of the mind. Just as the body can be enslaved, such can be the enforced captivity of the mind. This notion not only applies to those who have been held in isolation for long periods of time, but also those whose independence is relative to their daily functions of existence. Many people are free of chains indeed, but remain mentally enslaved by lack of vision, inclination, cultural, economic, and/or political “mis-education”.
During the early nineteenth century, slaves often made way for [mental] freedom through religious chants, moans, ring-shouts, and celebrations. Though in bondage, these spiritual lyrics were significant to their travels and implied a more blissful outlook and relief that salvation was on its way. These songs of freedom gave them hope and had many meanings.
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me/ coming for to carry me home” a verse from “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” and a song of the Underground Railroad that helped the fugitives to rely on one another. Other hymns such as, “There is a Balm in Gilead” soothed their souls and made way for healing. Many of melodies did not appear in any journals until the 1867 publication of “Slave Songs of The United States”, a book written by Allen, Ware, Garrison. When the Civil Rights era approached in the 1960s, Negro spirituals emerged such as “We Shall Overcome”, “Oh Freedom” and “This Little Light of Mine.” When I pull the acoustic strings in my mind, I can feel the reverberation of my people and my country – past and present.
Slaves of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries endured countless journeys seared in the flames of withering injustice. Though many remained chained and even more died senselessly, others were able to eventually find an escape within the boundless worlds of their own imaginations. And though slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, human trafficking remains an international problem and an estimated 29.8 million people are living in illegal slavery today. [Source: Anti-Slavery Society.com]
The journey to redemption has been elongated, but still, WE WILL RISE.
Today, Juneteenth has evolved into a day of remembrance of a painful past but, also a purposeful position for the journey ahead. It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. From its Galveston, Texas origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. [Source: Wikipedia]
Juneteenth is a day, a week, month, and culture of commemorating African American freedom. Its emphasis is deeply centered on education, empowerment, achievement and progression for African Americans. Since its inception, celebratory events have included public forums, speaking engagements, festivals, family and communal gatherings. It is a reflective time in the history of Black America and a period for assessment, self-improvement, and planning for the future. People of all ethnic backgrounds, religions, and nationalities are joining together to acknowledge a period in our history that is never to be forgotten.
Freedom is a popular term used in the Land of the Free. What is not popular is the knowledge of how to truly be free. From Bob Marley to Johnny Cash, Brooke Hogan, Switchfoot, and Muse, the world is whistling about redemption of the mind, body, and soul; for there is no greater love – than freedom.
In 1930, the first Juneteenth celebration was held at Rosewood Park. [above photo] On January 1, 1980, the bill was passed making “Juneteenth” an official state holiday. Shall we never forget these songs of freedom.
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” ~ Fannie Lou Hamer